Doc didn’t just emerge from the barn that evening, he exploded from it, like a greyhound in its frenzied rush to catch the rabbit. He cradled his tattered straw hat, turned upside-down to hold his precious bounty, as he scrambled down the path to show us what he had found.
As he reached the four of us and excitedly showed off the eggs in his hat, I ducked behind a tree. A 12-year-old’s giggling spree would have easily ruined the plot, and to that point, everything was working to plan.
Doc migrated to southeastern Arizona from the midwest in the early 1970s, settling into a cabin on a small ranch in the vista-rich Sulphur Springs Valley. My father and I occupied the other cabin, and the main house belonged to Ron and Miss Pat. Doc, Ron and Dad all worked together at a nearby juvenile correction center. Nearly every evening we’d sit outside enjoying the scenery, while I played with the dogs and the adults sipped their burgundy. Doc was a nice guy, a brilliant psychiatrist who had befriended Ron and Pat before they all moved west.
We thought it was passing fancy when Doc had Salvador, the ranch hand, start refurbishing the barn. First he had the horse stalls spiffed up, and he brought Ol’ Blue, a stately 15-year-old Appaloosa, to enjoy retirement at the ranch. A few months later, a pig named Myrtle joined the cast. But when he asked Salvador to spruce up the chicken coop, we started wondering if Doc was changing occupations. Salvador had one word to describe his boss: loco.
“Doc seems to be trading in his shingle for a pitchfork,” Dad told Ron one evening.
Pat had somehow tamed the rocky land between the barn and the cabins into a respectable vegetable garden, and now Doc had his growing menagerie. As soon as the Poultry Taj Mahal was complete, Doc proudly brought home a baker’s dozen of fluffy yellow chicks.
Oh, how Doc spoiled these birds! Only the finest feed would suffice. Each day, I would hear his International Scout rumbling down the road about a mile away. A few minutes later, he’d roll into the ranch. Then he’d go inside and change out of his work clothes into his overalls and hat, grab a beer and head up to the barn to check on his “babies”. We were all amused by Doc’s dedication. Neighboring ranchers took to calling him “Farmer Doc”.
Weeks passed, and the feisty chicks grew rapidly. Doc couldn’t determine the sex of the birds, as roosters of this particular breed didn’t stand out until later. So when a neighbor dropped by one evening, he asked for help in determining what their gender was and why there were no eggs yet. With a grin, ol’ Joe Bull informed Doc he had 10 roosters and three hens.
“Just give ’em a little more time, Doc,” Joe said. “Hens are still a bit young and a bit harried by all those cocks, but they’ll start laying soon.”
Doc waited. We’d watch the ritual every night, and Doc seemed depressed. While the hens weren’t laying, the roosters started celebrating the beginning of the day. To a growing 12-year-old boy, this commotion was very annoying.
We took to teasing Doc unmercifully.
“Those birds wake me up early one more time,” I growled, “and we’ll fry a few of ’em. Don’t need roosters for eggs anyway.”
“Mmm,” Pat added. “Chicken soup sounds good.”
Doc took the kidding in stride. “One day you’ll see. It will all pay off when we have fresh eggs for breakfast every day.”
“Sure Doc,” Dad said. “There’s five of us and three hens. We could starve before you get enough for an omelet.”
One evening as we sat waiting for Doc to arrive, the egg-laying dilemma was the main topic of discussion. Wine and beer had loosened the adults a bit, and once again I enjoyed listening to their banter.
“Now, what if Doc came one day, and…” Ron mused with his trademark dry laugh and wry grin. He laid out a hypothetical dirty rotten trick. We all laughed at the possibility, especially me.
“He might die from the shock,” Pat warned.
The conversation shifted, but my adolescent mind was already planning the next day’s activity. Those darn roosters had been getting on my nerves, having wakened me early one too many times. It was time to play a trick on Farmer Doc.
The next day, I jumped off the bus and went right to work. Borrowing a few eggs from Pat, I added a few of our own until I had 13. Next, I mussed ’em up good with spit and dirt, a boy’s specialty. I began my mission, taking a long, roundabout way to the barn. I’d run a few steps, then crouch down low and make sure nobody was watching. I skirted around the stock tank and slipped into the barn from the back door.
Five ornery roosters accosted me as soon as I entered the chicken coop. Having previous experience with these feisty birds, I prepared for battle. I shooed them back with a straw broom, locked them outside, and set about my task. Chuckling with delight and anticipation, I placed eggs in each of the nine nests.
Doc was later than usual that evening. I could hardly control my glee as he rolled down the hill and through the ranch gate. We watched him don his ritual farmer’s attire and head up to the barn, promising to join us as soon as he “checked out the chicks”. My wide grin and uncontrolled giggling alerted the adults I was up to something. Ron and Pat exchanged glances with Dad, and they all looked at me in unison. Pat said it first, but they all realized it simultaneously.
“Oh no, Patrick,” Pat said. “You didn’t!”
“Yes, I did,” I said with a delighted laugh.
All three of them burst into laughter, but hushed each other as we heard Doc shouting from the barn. Moments later, he was stumbling down the path, thrilled to show us his prize. As he reached us, his hat nearly fell out of his hands.
“L-l-look at all these eggs!” he bellowed. “I told you they’d start laying soon! There’s over a dozen in here, they were all over the place! In some nests, I found two!”
Doc was so excited, I had to turn my head so he wouldn’t notice my amusement. He was so excited, he had no clue the joke was on him.
“Yep Doc,” Dad said, “looks like you hit the jackpot.”
We all managed to share his excitement without giving away my secret. In fact, I was surprised nobody told Doc what I had done. Unfortunately for Doc, the confession waited until he had bragged his chickens up one side of the valley and down the other. Doc’s Amazing Layin’ Chickens were the locals’ favorite topic that week.
“Them birds been real busy up to Doc’s barn,” Joe Bull was heard to say. “Next thing you know, he’ll be sending them roosters out to stud.”
The story spread so quickly I even heard about it at school. Still, I kept my secret. Actually, I was nervous about what might happen when he did find out the trickery he’d been a victim of. It was even more difficult to note his failure to find eggs the next few days was starting to perplex him. Perhaps I had waited too long. It was time to confess.
“Doc,” I said sheepishly that evening, “I need to tell you something. It, well…”
“Yes?” Doc said with a confused look.
“I… I put those eggs in the nests,” I stammered.
As the magnitude of what I had said sank in, Doc’s face lost all color. His features sank in disbelief. At first, his mouth moved but no sounds came out of it. At a complete loss for words, his face then began to redden. He seemed unable to grasp this had all been a prank pulled off by the mischievous boy facing him. As he realized how much grief he was about to absorb for his bragging, he displayed an embarrassed, tight-lipped smile.
“I don’t care how long it takes,” he hissed, “but I’ll, I’ll get you for this, I promise. I don’t know how and you won’t know when, but I’ll get you back.”
Looking back, 40 years later, I feel guilty knowing what a cruel trick it was. Doc never did get his revenge. Within a few years, we had all gone in different directions. Until Doc passed away a while back, I often wondered if he would make good on his promise. Even so, I believe there are still some ranchers who remember Ol’ Doc’s Amazin’ Layin’ Roosters, and I still enjoy telling the story.
I’m sure, though, Doc’s spirit lies in wait.
© 2002, 2014 by Patrick B. Coomer. May not be used in any form without the express written consent of the author.